Consumers Energy officials came to Ludington Tuesday to answer Mason County Planning Commission questions about its Lake Winds Energy Park and give an update on operation of turbines at the site.
They were also met by about 27 people – some of whom spoke about problems and concerns they’ve experienced living near the 476-foot-tall wind turbines.
Dennis Marvin, a spokesman for the utility, said the informational session was to fulfill a request from the planning commission and Mason County Planning and Zoning Director Mary Reilly to update them on issues that developed since the wind farm started operations on Thanksgiving Day 2012.
“And to reassure the public that we’re going to operate Lake Winds safely,” Marvin said.
Among the comments Marvin and Bill Schoenlein, manager of Consumers Energy’s hydro and renewable energy department, heard from three people Tuesday night – including Mason County Commissioner Janet Andersen and Planning Commissioner Bruce Patterson – were that they don’t think of Consumers as a good neighbor.
Many of Tuesday’s comments were to express dissatisfaction with the way the utility has handled complaints about the wind farm to date.
“I have to say, I’m not very happy with how complaints have gone so far. I don’t think you’re a good neighbor either,” Patterson said.
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“I just need to know you’re going to answer people,” Patterson also said during Tuesday’s meeting.
He suggested Consumers officials, when complaints are filed, should visit the complainant, and said when they don’t adequately answer complaints those people become angry and take it out on the planning commission.
Patterson also said he would like to see Consumers representatives attend future planning commission meetings so they can answer the complaints.
Blade icing has halted operations at the wind farm four times since 2013 began, Schoenlein said.
The first time occurred from Jan. 13 through Jan. 20, Schoenlein said, and turbines were halted after ice was seen on the turbine blades.
The second shutdown took place from Jan. 22 to 28, he said, with the third time on Jan. 29 and the fourth time was Jan. 30 through Feb. 1.
Schoenlein said the company found a problem with a connection path from its ice sensors on its Met towers. The sensors are designed to signal a Duke Energy office in North Carolina if they sense ice buildup and the Duke Energy workers can shut down the turbines if they receive that information.
The problem with the connection path stopped that from happening Jan. 13.
Consumers did shut off the turbines when the problem was discovered and has shut them down at the other times when ice was detected on the blades.
Marvin said the problem was corrected and also said there are other ways of learning if ice is building up.
Marvin noted that most wind farms don’t have ice detection and mitigation procedures, but said Consumers’ agreement with Mason County calls for the procedure.
Evelyn Bergaila, who lives in the wind farm area, questioned the company about the first icing incident and said she noticed ice covering everything in the area about seven hours before the company shut down the turbines.
“There are people’s lives at stake here,” she said.
Bergaila also asked Schoenlein if the sensors on both Met towers malfunctioned and was told, yes.
She also asked how the turbines were approved for use if the system to detect icing didn’t work and was told they tested out before installation.
She also asked if the company monitored the situation by sending people out on snowmobiles at night to look, and was told the company didn’t think that was a practical plan.
Shannon Ray said her house’s roof and windows have been hit by ice falling from a wind turbine.
Schoenlein said he first saw her complaint earlier on Tuesday and he did not think her situation was caused by ice from the turbines. He also said turbines were checked before restarting when icing occurred and workers made sure there was no ice on them, but did not make sure there was no snow on them.
Cary Shineldecker, who lives near turbines and headed a group that opposed permission for the wind farm, recommended the company install redundant measuring equipment so if the readings don’t match Consumers will know it has a problem.
Schoenlein said people have been experiencing problems with television reception using antennas in the wind farm area. He said the company really couldn’t know the impact it would have on that until after installation and operation of the turbines.
He said the turbine towers can be an obstruction to a signal from a broadcast transmitter.
The company, Schoenlein said, has options for helping with that problem. He said if a home has a good antenna, it might just need an amplifier to get better reception.
Schoenlein said the company takes the complaints as they come in and waits until there is a small group of them before bringing an investigation unit to the area. He said two investigations have occurred and another is scheduled for Friday.
Consumers Energy is considering changing its modeling distance regarding shadow flicker from the turbine blades from 1,000 meters to 1,646 meters after hearing about complaints and checking the situation.
“We have perceived shadow flicker past the 1,000 meters and the technology is there and it’s the right thing to do,” Schoenlein said about changing its modeling distance.
He said the company’s permit with the county restricts shadow flicker to 10 hours a year for homes in the area. The company’s goal is to keep the number to eight hours or fewer so there is a margin between that and the limit.
Shineldecker said he has already recorded 9.4 hours of flicker at his home – and only recorded on days he was home. He said
that occurred in less than two months – due to the icing shutdowns – and he expected it would be well over 10 hours in a full year.
Marvin has said the local wind farm has the first shadow flicker detection system in the United States.
People living near the turbines also have complained about a “wonging” noise coming from the turbines, and coming at intervals spaced only seven to 15 seconds apart.
Schoenlein said the noise comes from the hydraulic pumps cycling. He said the sounds should be less frequent than recorded and said a check found that a valve wasn’t going through the full stroke so the noise came more often than expected.
He said technicians are working turbine by turbine to check out the pumps, but did note that the sound is part of a turbine’s operation.
“It’s our job to check on those and make sure they are working as intended,” Schoenlein added.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Bergaila said she is unhappy that the company told her repeatedly that she wasn’t hearing the wong sound as often as she reported. She said that is not acceptable and Consumers representatives need to go deal with people who are complaining.
Bergaila also asked how often she should hear the wong sound and Schoenlein said it depends on the operation and the temperature and if the hydraulics are needed to pitch the blades.
One turbine – No. 22 – was “whistling” during operations and has been stopped until the noise can be corrected, Schoenlein said.
“We have been asked why it’s not operating and it was because of the whistle,” he said.
Consumers has a warranty with Vestas to fix the problem.
Schoenlein said the blade has been looked over from the vantage points available and that he expects Vestas will send a crane to the turbine Thursday so it can be more closely examined.
Schoenlein said it is too early to tell if the wind farm will produce forecast power outputs.
Marvin also said the park must be in operation for a full year before the company can understand how the changing seasons will affect the output.
Shineldecker spoke for several minutes to say why he is unhappy living near wind turbines.
Possibly his biggest complaint was that Consumers officials have repeatedly ignored his complaints.
“Your complaint resolution system, I found, is completely insincere,” he said.
He was also unhappy during the project’s construction period about the company having an access road built across from his house and about a septic system leak that may have been caused by construction work nearby.
When he complained, he said, he was told construction period problems don’t count.
“I find that unacceptable, good neighbor,” Shineldecker said.
He also complained about a squeal he heard during a night test for a turbine and complained that he had been nauseated by pressure he said is caused by a wind turbine.
“Where is the good neighbor?” Mason County Commissioner Janet Andersen asked of the Consumers representatives at one point.
She also believes the company should have a representative present at planning commission meetings because the commissioners are taking the heat for the project.
Jeannie Parsons asked if the company has a backup plan for icing problems.
Schoenlein said the company has used observation of conditions and weather forecasts in making decisions once it was learned there was a problem with communications from the ice sensors on the Met towers.
The woman also said she has a static electricity problem in her house and she believes it’s caused by the wind turbines.